“Numbah one! Numbah one!” rang out in a deafeningly unified cry among the fans that trecked over the Whitestone and Throgs Neck Bridge, traversed the Major Deegan and Cross-County expressways to see Mike Francesa, the man whose voice that had accompanied them on so many of their drives before via WFAN Sports Radio 66AM.
Smartphones and Bud Lights were raised in Irving Place on Saturday, which was quite literally packed to the rafters with a sold-out crowd for the second annual FrancesaCon. The Mongos, a name embraced by Francesa's diehard fans, had come out in full force to revel in the absurdity of their leader.
Like the men and women who dress up as Captain America and Wonder Woman for ComicCon, twenty-somethings in gray-haired wigs with headsets dressed to emulate the radio host at this other celebration of cult fandom.
One dressed as a can of Diet Coke with a staff made out of Diet Coke bottles and a pontiff’s hat made out of a diet coke box—a nod to Francesa’s signature drink and his nickname as the “Sports Pope.” Their voices rose up in a mélange of accents reflecting their hometowns of Staten Island, Rockaway, Montclaire, New Rochelle, and the South Shore of Long Island.
“Mike, how’s ya snowblowah?,” a man in the crowd kept screaming joyously before the chant morphed into “Fuck Michael Kay! Fuck Michael Kay!”
Without the context of growing up listening to Francesa rip former New York Giants Tiki Barber a new one or expound on the culinary delights of a Shake Shack hamburger at Citi Field, the mass seems absolutely deranged. Actually—and I say this as someone trying to squeeze into the crowd along with my father and teenage brother— we seemed even more deranged if you do know Francesa and his 25 years of broadcasting.
Without question, Francesa is one of the most polarizing and ludicrous radio hosts. If there’s a Rush Limbaugh of sports, it is he. He thrives on being pugnacious, loves telling callers how and why they’re wrong, and rarely admits when he says blatantly false things.
Francesa will brutally tackle the Jets’ miserable 2014 season the way Limbaugh went after Sandra Fluke. It ain’t pretty, but with both, it’s what the callers love. At least with Francesa, the 60-year-old began his career at CBS as a sports statistician, so he knows his stuff—but he’ll rarely admit it when he doesn’t.
One of his many infamous gaffes involved mocking a caller talking about pitcher Al Alburquerque for making up such a “childish” moniker when, in fact, Al Alburquerque is the absolutely real name. Also, Francesa has flat-out fallen asleep on the air—and angrily claimed he didn’t, despite the damning video proof (his radio show is filmed and airs on Fox Sports).
Sometimes, Francesa’s bombastic remarks land outside the world of sports. Earlier this year, he ripped Mets second baseman Daniel Murphy for taking off three days when his wife had a baby, which exploded into a nonsensical 20-minute-plus rant against paternity leave.
Because Francesa can be an arrogant, pigheaded fool of a host even when he’s not talking about the Yankees’ lineup or refusing to talk about hockey, I expected the crowd of FrancesaCon to be there with an ironic or tempered love for the man, if that.
Surely, this teeming sausage fest—at least 90 percent of the crowd was male—dressed in New Jersey Devils t-shirt and Yankees caps couldn’t be here to earnestly, wholeheartedly salute the man?
But they actually kind of were.
I ventured over to a small crowd of 23-year-old men dressed in full Francesa regalia with wigs and headsets to ask them why they love him. “His opinion is second to none. I respect him for what he’s been through,” one tells me. What exactly has Francesa “been through” I wonder. Did he stop talking with Ira in Staten Island about the Jets’ playoff odds to do a stint in Kandahar?
But before I could ask about this, another Francesa-look-alike added, “I listen to Mike because he knows what he’s talking about. He’s not afraid to set a caller straight—and a lot of callers need to be set straight.”
At this point, I have to press them on Francesa’s well-documented errors on air. They get extremely defensive.
“He’s just giving his opinion. He’s on for six hours [it’s five and half],” one says, and another adds, ”If I was on for six hours daily, I would get things wrong, too.” Francesa reportedly makes around $5 million for his WFAN show, so that’s being paid a lot to get things wrong.
I actually ask them if they’re messing with me when they say how much they adore Francesa, but this deification is actually legitimate—which is exactly what the founders intended.
Michael Leboff, who founded FrancesaCon with fellow sports writer Ron Haraka, says they created the event “out of love for the guy,” wanting a place for his fans to “come together and celebrate.”
Last year’s FrancesaCon drew a crowd of 600, and this year’s sold out at 1,000. From a Francesa impersonator hosting sports trivia to “Hello My Name Is” name tags, so people can identify themselves with their first name and hometown, as callers to the show do, FrancesaCon has everything for this simultaneously bro-y and quirky cult.
The biggest coup of all is that they got the man himself to attend this year—and the crowd goes crazy at Francesa’s every word. “A thousand people with nothing better to do. You guys pay for this?,” he jokes (yes, they did; it’s $15, but it goes to charity). “You’re all nuts,” he says after five, maybe ten minutes on stage. It’s his drop the mic moment, and the audience roars.
This adoring reaction is all the more surprising because the crowd was almost entirely Millennial. Aside from the parents of one of the FrancesaCon founders and one of Francesa’s regular callers, everyone I spoke to was under the age of 35.
Some had been on the earth for a shorter time than Francesa has been on the air. They all adored him, despite the fact that he is such an anachronistic figure; not only does he talk like your uncle from Long Beach who doesn’t want to hear about “DeBlasio’s New York,” but he is a radio host, a job that in and of itself is of another era.
Ironically, though, Francesa may have gained a new—and more enthusiastic—generation of fans thanks to Twitter, though he himself does not actually participate in social media. #MongoNation hangs onto his every word, the more outrageous the better, and dissects it over Twitter.
This cult community has clustered around Twitter accounts that idolize Francesa’s seeming flaws: his accent, his incoherent tangents, his inaccuracies. @WFANAudio publishes Francesa clips, including his rants and gaffes, and @MikeFrancesaNY is a parody account that tweets out in accented, phonetically-written Francesa lingo to evoke his voice.
Here’s an example regarding the recent Deflategate: “DID BRADY AND BELLY CHECK SPEAK TO ANYBODY?!?!?! DA PATS BELIEVE IN FAIYAH PLAY! DA PATRIOTS!? DEY WERE FINED HALF A MILLION FOAH CHEATIN!” You can almost feel Francesa’s Diet Coke-flavored spittle hitting your face as you read it.
Underlying this cyber-fandom, there is a massive nostalgia factor for Millennials. I heard countless anecdotes about going to Yankee games and listening to Francesa on the car rides. “We grew up with him,” two men from Long Island tell me. One called Francesa as a “father-figure,” describing him as “sagacious.”
So much of the crowd considered Francesa like family, to the point that they compared his famous professional split in 2004 with co-host Chris Russo aka “Mad Dog” to a parent’s divorce. Easily, the best exchange of the day was between two 29-year-old’s remembering when the Mike and the Mad Dog radio show came to an end:
“Saddest day of my life was Mike and Chris breaking up.”“That hurt.”“Literally couldn’t go to work the next day.”“It’s like parents getting divorced, Mike and Chris breaking up. It hurt that much.” (he turns to me) “My parents aren’t actually divorced.”“My parents did get divorced, and it was still harder than that.”
This man added: “If he [Francesa] brings Chris next year, I will pay up to and including $500. I’ll cash out my 401k, sell my house. I don’t care what it takes, I will be there.”
However, at least some of the FrancesaCon fans don’t see the Sports Pope through such rose-colored glasses. I ask a 32-year-old in a New Jersey Devils cap why he thinks Francesa is so popular. “Because you love him slightly more if not as much as you hate him,” he says. For him, FrancesaCon is “one of the more enjoyable and weird events where a bunch of twenty, thirty, and forty-year old white guys have this weird figure, and they all get together and celebrate their weirdness.”
His friend is of two minds when it comes to Francesa. He tells a story about interning for Francesa’s radio show and being torn to pieces by the Sports Pope when his train was running late one day and he couldn’t get an audio clip ready quite in time. “He was a dick then,” he tells me.
So, why is he here?
“It’s a part of my life,” he says before proudly playing his ringtone, the jingle for WFAN Sports Radio 66. “While he may be a pompous douche, he knows everything. He’s informative and entertaining—and he’s the best.”